On Hiroshima Day 2015 – Like a Child Piling Blocks

Like a child piling blocks
Your words construct new dreams,
Towering poet.

Gentle and strong, as trees
Bend gracefully in wind,
You stand – and I bow.

One of the great pleasures in life has been the unexpected friendship with Japanese theologian Kosuke Koyama.

Ko, as his friends called him with great affection, and his wife Lois, a native Minnesotan, came to Minneapolis following retirement from a distinguished teaching position at Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York. I knew him only by reputation: John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Professor of World Christianity Emeritus; cutting edge Asian liberation theologian and leader in Thailand, Singapore, New Zealand, and the United States; author of Water Buffalo Theology, No Handle on the Cross, Three Mile an Hour God, Mt. Fuji and Mt. Sinai, among others; pioneer in Buddhist-Christian intersection and inter-religious dialogue; spell-binding keynote speaker at the Fifth Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Nairobi, Kenya.

The friendship that developed, if friendship can be defined to include mentors and those they mentor, great minds and ordinary ones, people of stature and those who look up to them, the wise and the less wise, was particularly impactful because my father had been an Army Air Force Chaplain in the South Pacific in World War II.

During the March, 1945 firebombing of Tokyo, the planes came from my father’s air base. Though my father rarely spoke about the war, there was a certain sullenness that would come over him whenever I would ask him for stories. Now, after my father’s passing, I was learning from Ko what the war had meant to the 15 year-old Japanese boy being baptized in Tokyo while the bombs dropped all around his church.

The pastor who baptized him instructed him. “Kosuke, you are a disciple of Jesus Christ. You must love your neighbors…even the Americans.”

For the rest of his life Ko pursued the daunting question of what neighbor love means. Who is the enemy? Who is the neighbor? Are they one and the same? Late in his life, before he and Lois moved from Minneapolis to live with their son in Massachusetts, he had come to the conclusion that there is only one sin: exceptionalism. At first it struck me as strange. Can one really reduce the meaning and scope of sin to exceptionalism? What is exceptionalism, and why is it sinful?

At the time of our discussion, the phrase “American exceptionalism” – the claim that the United States is exceptional among the nations – was making the news. It was this view that led to the invasions and wars in Afghanistan and Iraq – the unexamined belief that the Afghanis and the Iraqis would welcome us with open arms as liberators – that captured in a phrase the previously largely unspoken popular conviction that America is exceptional.

In this American belligerence Ko heard the latest form of an old claim that had brought such devastation on his people and the people of the world. The voices from the White House, the State Department, and the Department of Defense, though they spoke English, sounded all too familiar, impervious to criticism and restraint on the nation’s military and economic adventures.

Nine years ago today, on Hiroshima Day, 2006 he spoke to a small crowd at the Peace Garden in Minneapolis at the exact hour the bomb incinerated Hiroshima. His voice rang with a quiet authority that only comes from the depths of experience. Here’s an excerpt from that speech:

“During the war (1941-45) the Japanese people were bombarded by the official propaganda that Japan is the divine nation, for the emperor is divine. The word ‘Divine’ was profusely used.This was Japanese wartime ‘dishonest religion’, or shall we call it ‘mendacious theology’? This ‘god-talk’ presented an immature god who spoke only Japanese and was undereducated about other cultures and international relations. Trusting in this parochial god, Japan destroyed itself. “

“Then,he said to make his point to his American listeners, “dear friends, do not trust a god who speaks only English, and has no understanding of Arabic or islamic culture and history. If you follow such a small town god you may be infected with the poison of exceptionalism: ‘I am ok. You are not ok.’ For the last 5,000 years the self-righteous passion of ‘I am ok. You are not ok’ has perpetuated war and destruction. War ’has never been and it will never be’ able to solve international conflicts, says Pope John Paul II.”

Two paragraphs later, Koyama spoke in terms that speak to the policy of drones and other advanced military technology:

“In spite of the remarkable advances humanity has made in science/technological [sic], our moral and spiritual growth has been stunted. Humankind seems addicted to destruction even with nuclear weapons and biological weapons. Today there are 639 million small arms actively present in the world (National Catholic Reporter, June 30, 2006).Fear propaganda always kills Hope. Violence is called sacrifice. Children killed in war are cruelly called a part of the ‘collateral damage’.”

Today, Hiroshima Day, 2015 I wish I could break bread with Ko and my father to discuss the meaning of it all, and share with Dad the haiku poems published in The New York Times following Ko’s death, written in his honor by his colleague at Union, Peggy Shriver, testaments to hope in belligerent times:

Smiling East-West spirit,
You move with sun and Son,
Shining Peace on us.


Like a child piling blocks
Your words construct new dreams,
Towering poet.


Gentle and strong, as trees
Bend gracefully in wind,
You stand – and I bow.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, August 6, 2015

10 thoughts on “On Hiroshima Day 2015 – Like a Child Piling Blocks

  1. In 1987 I interviewed, Ron Reidinower/sp?, who managed to get his senator, Udall/Ariz., to investigate My Lai, aka,”Pinkville” when he returned from Viet Nam. Reidinower was a medic that day in the area of My Lai. He told me he knew that officers were circling My Lai in helicopters at 2000, 4000, & 5000 ft directing the massacre. This was SOP for the American military in Viet Nam. There were many My Lais.


    • It’s easy to direct mass killings from thousands of feet in the air. Those who directed them never had to look into the ditch, never saw the eyes, never saw the blood, never heard the screams, the moans, or the wailing. Technology is a wonderful thing when used for good purposes – e.g. just had two cataract surgeries without pain and with improved vision – but it has also increased the human capacity for cruelty and brutality, a moral numbness, what Stringfellow called “de-moralized.”

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, distance makes one immune to flashbacks of horror. Only when one sees the film of one’s actions does the effect become almost as bad as being there in person. I knew B-52 pilots returning from carpet bombing runs in Viet Nam that had nervous breakdowns after seeing film of the cities & villages they destroyed. But of course, we are exceptional & were saving people from more extensive loss of life because God wanted us to. Doc’s place in Central Texas is more disoriented than I thought. He sounds so rational as did all the other LeMay’s of the world.


  2. Gordon, this is so moving and powerful. I wish I could send it to my “congresscritters”, as Jim Hightower calls them, though I am afraid they wouldn’t “get it.” The eyes of their souls are blind, I fear. Perhaps I will try, anyway, and hop for the best. (May I try to correct one typo — “impervious” lacks the letter “p” in the above.)

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Gordon,

    First; You have the option of making this comment public or not, the same is true of my previous comments. I’ll leave that decision entirely up to you, you may even spare me a little public embarrassment in the process. Who knows.

    I’ve done a little due diligence regarding my lack of information, and I must tell you sir, I really didn’t learn much that I didn’t already know about you. As I said, your eloquent writing style makes your meanings, and your intent, perfectly clear. While the background info I discovered did come as a bit of a surprise (I was unaware of most of it other than what is published here) I’m really not surprised at all that I responded as quickly and the way I did to your post. My original response was purely organic, and it was based entirely on my personal principles. I would have responded the same way if you had been any other human on earth.

    I also read a few of your other posts, needless to say; everything I read merely confirmed my original “understanding” of who you are. In other words Gordon, (and I say this with both respect and disdain) You do not fool me, I knew you from your first words, your Credentials simply confirmed what was obvious from the start. Take that as you will.

    At this point, I’m pretty sure that you are convinced that I am some sort of zealot or just another “right-wing nut job”, but in truth I am just another American. A Christian American.

    I’m going to speak very clearly now Gordon, in the form of a single question.

    How in the name of God can you claim to be a Christian and a Democrat in the same breath?

    Should you decide to respond, (and you are under no obligation to do so) please take all the time you require to consider the question. May your eloquent writing style serve you well.


    • Doc and CJ,

      I wish I knew where and how to continue the discussion. Let me begin by saying I’ve never called another person “just another ‘right-wing nut job'” and have no idea who either of you is. All I know is that our understandings of the gospel of Jesus Christ are vastly different. It disappoints me whenever as reader chooses to comment on a post without commenting on the piece itself. My father and Ko were both Christians and pastors, one Japanese, the other American. Both saw themselves as disciples of Jesus, so the irony is hard to miss that two brothers in Christ were on such different ends of human destruction. There is another post you might find interesting in this regard called Memorial Day and Soldier’s Helmet. You can enter the title in the search box to find it, if you choose to take more time.

      “I also read a few of your other posts, needless to say; everything I read merely confirmed my original “understanding” of who you are. In other words Gordon, (and I say this with both respect and disdain) You do not fool me, I knew you from your first words, your Credentials simply confirmed what was obvious from the start. Take that as you will.”

      Who is it, Doc’ and CJ, that you know me to be? And how am I supposed to take it (“take that as you will”)? “I knew you from your first words, your Credentials simply confirmed what was obvious from the start…” is a strange statement begging for explanation until I read your single question.

      “I’m going to speak very clearly now Gordon, in the form of a single question.

      “How in the name of God can you claim to be a Christian and a Democrat in the same breath?”

      The question comes as a shock for several reasons. First, I am not a member of the Democratic Party. And, if I were, it would not be incompatible with my Christian faith. That you would boil things down to a single question and that the single question makes assumptions about me or that being a Democrat is the opposite of being Christian leaves me wondering what your life experience is and what your church/reading of the Bible lead you to believe.

      I believe in the rule of love. “God is love.” The crucified-risen Jesus sitting at the right hand of the Father is the Prince of Peace and the Lord of Lords. If we had no other text or teaching from Jesus but the Sermon on the Mount, we would have what Jesus calls for from his disciples. Compassion in all things. Love in all things. Peaceableness in all things. Faithfulness to the way, truth, and life which Jesus was and always will be.

      Thanks for listening. I wish you well. Blessings and Peace, Gordon


  4. Gordon,

    As you suggested I did read this post, admittedly after first replying to the previous comments. I am glad I read this post and I thank you for directing me to it. I do in fact now have at least a little better understanding of who you are. But in all honesty Pastor, I already knew who you “are” from the first words in the aforementioned post. Your eloquent and well trained writing style clearly conveys the meanings of your sentences, and your beliefs. A skill I greatly admire.

    Which is exactly what prompted my immediate and somewhat uninformed previous response. As I said, I wouldn’t normally make such impromptu comments, but the clarity of your meanings spurred my urgency. In plainer words, I clearly understood what was being said Pastor, I just do not agree. In further honesty, I am even somewhat offended by the message and context of that post. I am a bit shocked that you would permit yourself to be so insulting to so many, are you even aware that you have done so?

    I suspect that you are a bit confused as to my meaning as you read this, but I’m confident your Father would understand my meaning as clearly as I understand yours Sir. And I further suspect you and he would finally have that long talk that he never talked about much if he were here to see this exchange.

    The truest words you have ever spoken Pastor were when you quoted your dear friend Ko; “His voice rang with a quiet authority that only comes from the depths of experience”. Only those who have been there, truly have the experience to speak with authority. One does not have to be a Theologian to see that. I suspect your Father would be in agreement with me on this point.

    With all due respect Pastor, you have much to learn. Academia is not a Religion. Or is it? Perhaps Ko described it best as: “mendacious theology”. I’m just one of those aforementioned “ordinary ones”, surely those who are of more “stature” and prestigious education than myself have much more valid opinions.

    At the risk of sounding like a “belligerent American”, “exceptionalism” indeed Sir, “exceptionalism” indeed.


    • Doc’ and CJ,

      I choose to respond to your comments in the only way I know how without plunging all of us further into the swamp of punch and counter-punch negativity. The only thing I would share with you is this: my father, the Air Force Chaplain, taught me most of what I know. The father who came home from the war when I was three-and-a-half would applaud this piece and would have been as quick as Ko to sit down together at the same table for a long talk about the meaning of it all. As for my experience, I have sat through the night with a student, a returning Viet Nam vet, who’d not slept in three weeks. The bartender at the university bar called me at home at 2:00 a.m. to tell me there was a guy who was beside himself, near hysterical. Could he bring him to the house? I’d never met the student before. His story? He’d killed three children and their mother in the My Lai massacre. Every time he tried to sleep, he kept seeing them lying in the ditch. His experience became part of my experience; my experience as a pastor became part of his. We organized the 300 vets in the Vets House, outcasts to an anti-war student body and faculty, to share their stories of returning to the States with church groups in the Milwaukee area. I could go on but won’t. We disagree intensely. I wish you both well and hope you might do the same in the spirit of agreeing to disagree agreeably. Over and out, Gordon

      Liked by 1 person

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